CALVINISM AS AN EVANGELIZING FORCE
(from Chapter 4 of Calvinism In History)
N. S. McFetridge
In this chapter our inquiry will be as to the evangelizing force of Calvinism. Has Calvinism, as compared with other systems of religious doctrine, shown itself to have been a power in the evangelization of the world? This is the most important question connected with any system of belief. All other questions are, in every Christian's opinion, subordinate to this. To save sinners and convert the world to a practical godliness must be the chief, the first and last, aim of every system of religion. If it does not respond to this, it must be set aside, however popular it may be.
The question, then, before us now is, to whether the system of doctrines called Calvinism is the most acceptable and popular with the world, but whether it is eminently adapted to the conversion of sinners and the edification of believers.
In determining this I shall proceed, as in the preceding chapters, according to the law, "The tree is known by its fruit."
We may, however, premise, on the ground of the doctrines included in this system, that it is certainly most favorable to the spread of Christianity. Its doctrines are all taken directly from the Scriptures. The word of God is its only infallible rule of faith and practice. Even its doctrine of predestination, or election, which most men dislike, but which all Christians practically believe and teach, is granted by some of its bitterest opponents to be a transcript of the teachings of the New Testament.
The historian Froude says: "If Arminianism most commends itself to our feelings, Calvinism is nearer to the facts, however harsh and forbidding those facts may seem." (1). And Archbishop Whately says the objections against it "are objections against the facts of the case." So Spinoza and John Stuart Mill and Buckle, and all the materialistic and metaphysical philosophers, can find," says an eminent authority, "no better account of the situation of man than in the illustrations of St. Paul; 'Hath not the potter power over the clay, to make one vessel to honor and another to dishonor?'" There never has been, and it is doubtful if there ever can be, an Arminian philosophy. The facts of life are against it; and no man would attempt to found a philosophy on feeling against fact.
Arminian theologians thought they had discovered the starting-point for a systematic philosophy and theology in the doctrine of "free-will;" but even that was swept away from them by the logic of Jonathan Edwards, and it has continued to be swept farther and farther away by Buckle and Mill and all the great philosophers. Hence it comes that to this day, there is not a logical and systematic body of Arminian divinity. It has as in the Methodist Church, a brief and informal creed in some twenty-five articles, but it has neither a Confession of Faith nor a complete and logical system of doctrine. 2) To make such a system it must overthrow the philosophy of the world and the facts of human experience; and it is not likely to do that very soon.
Now, the thought is, must not a theology which agrees with the facts of the case, which recognizes the actual condition of man and his relations to God, be more favorable to man's salvation than one which ignores the facts?
This is confirmed by the nature of the particular doctrines involved. We freely agree with Froude and Macaulay that Arminianism, in one aspect of it, is more agreeable to the feelings" and "more popular" with the natural heart, as that which exalts man in his own sight is always more agreeable to him than that which abases him. Arminianism, in denying the imputation of Christ's righteousness to the believer, in setting him on his own works of righteousness, and in promising him such perfection in this life as that there is no more sin left in him -- or, in the words of John Wesley, a "free, full and present salvation from all the guilt, all the power and all the in-being of sin" (3) -- lays the foundation for the notions of works of supererogation, and that the believer, while in a state of grace, cannot commit sin. It thus powerfully ministers to human pride and self-glorification. Calvinism, on the other hand, by imputing Christ's righteousness to the believer, and making the sinner utterly and absolutely dependent on Christ for his salvation, cuts away all occasion for boasting and lays him low at the foot of the cross. Hence it cannot be so agreeable to the feelings of our carnal heart. But may it not be more salutary, nevertheless? It is not always the most agreeable medicine which is the most healing. The experience of the apostle John is one of frequent occurrence, that the little book which is sweet as honey in the mouth is bitter in the belly. Christ crucified was a stumbling-block to one class of people and foolishness to another, and yet he was, and is, the power of God and the wisdom of God unto salvation to all who believe.
The centre doctrine of Calvinism, as an evangelistic power, is that which Luther called "the article of a standing or a falling Church" -- "justification by faith alone, in the righteousness of Christ alone." And is not that the doctrine of the gospel? Where does the Holy Spirit ascribe the merit of any part of salvation to the sinner?
But aside from that question, which it is not my purpose here to argue, would not reason dictate that that doctrine is most conducive to salvation which makes most of sin and most of grace?
Rowland Hill once said that "the devil makes little of sin, that he may retain the sinner." It is evident at once that the man who considers himself in greatest danger will make the greatest efforts to escape. If I feel that I am only slightly indisposed, I shall not experience much anxiety, but if I am conscious that my disease is dangerous, I will lose no time in having it attended to. So if I feel, according to the Arminianism, that my salvation is a matter which I can settle myself at any moment, even in the last gasp of dissolution, I shall be prone to take my time and ease in deciding it; but if, according to Calvinism, I feel that I am dependent upon God for it, whose pleasure, and not my own, I am to consult, I will naturally give more earnest heed to it.
Thus reason brings forward her vindication of Calvinism against the allegation that it is not favorable to the pursuit of salvation. But perhaps some one may reply, "Has not the Methodist Church been more successful in her efforts to evangelize the world than any Calvinistic Church?" In answer I would say that I will give way to no one in my high estimate of that Church's piety and zeal and progress. I thank God, with all my heart, for what she has done, and I pray that she may never flag in her energy and success in winning souls to Jesus Christ. I admire her profoundly, and her noble army of men and women enlisted in the Master's service. May she ever go on, conquering and to conquer, until we all meet as one on the great day of the triumph of the Lamb!
But bear in mind that the aggressive Church has no well-defined system of doctrine, and that her Arminianism is of a very mild type, coming nowhere near that of High-Churchism or Roman Catholicism. Wherein lie the elements of her power and progress? I do not believe, and I am confident it cannot be shown, that they lie in her Arminianism or in the doctrines common to all the Christian churches, such as sin, Justification, regeneration and holiness, and in her admirable system of inerrancy, by which she keeps all her stations manned and sends forward fresh men to every new field. Let her preach Arminianism strictly and logically, and she will soon lose her aggressiveness, or become another institution than an evangelical Church of Christ.
Furthermore, Arminianism in the Methodist Church is but a century old. It has never passed through the years or the confusions through which Calvinism has passed. Will it continue in the ages to come to be the diffusive power which it has been for these years past? Of this I am persuaded, looking at the history and workings of religious opinions in the past: that the Church will be constrained in time to put forth a systematic and logical Confession of Faith,(4) out of which she will either drop all peculiarly Arminian doctrines, and so secure her permanency, or in which she will proclaim them, and by that means will inject the poison of death, as an evangelizing body, into her system. A thorough Arminianism and a practical evangelism have never yet remained long in loving harmony. Look at the history of doctrines as illustrated in the history of the Church of Rome, and you will see this clearly attested. Arminianism, in its principles, had been in operation in that Church for centuries when the Reformation broke forth, and what evangelistic work had it done? It had indeed converted almost the entire world, but to what had it converted it? It had formed and established the largest and most powerful Church which the world has ever seen, but what had it done for the salvation of human bodies and souls? It had made Romanists, but it had not made Christians equally as numerous. Was it not the very principles of the Calvinistic theology which flashed light upon the thick darkness, and threw fire into the corrupt mass, and lifted up the banner of the cross, so long trodden under a debased hierarchy, and revived the ancient faith of the Church, and established the great Protestant and evangelical denominations of Christians? Who but Calvinists -- or, as formerly called, Augustinians -- were the forerunners of the Reformers? Such was Wycliffe, "the morning star of the Reformation;" such was John of Goch and John of Wesalia and John of Wessel, "the light of the world;" and Savonorola of Florence, who thundered with such terrible vehemence against the sins of the clergy and people, who refused a cardinal's hat for his silence, saying, "he wished no red hat, but one reddened with his own blood, the hat given to the saints" -- who even demanded the removal of the pope, and, scorning all presents and promises and honors on condition of holding his tongue," gave his life for the holy cause another victim of priestly profligacy and bloodthirstiness. Every great luminary which in the Church immediately preceded the greater lights of the Reformation was in principle a Calvinist. Such also were the great national Reformers, as Luther of Germany, Zwingle of Switzerland, Calvin of France, Cranmer of England, Knox of Scotland. "Although each movement was self-originated, and different from the others in many permanent characteristics," (5) it was thoroughly Calvinistic. These men were driven to this theological belief, not by their peculiar intellectual endowments, but from their study of the word of God and the moral necessities of the Church and the world. They felt that half measures were useless -- that it was worse than folly to seek to unite a system of saving works with a system of saving faith. So "Calvinism in its sharp and logical structure, in its moral earnestness, in its demand for the reformation of ecclesiastical abuses, found a response in the consciences of good men." (6) It was it which swept, like a prairie-fire, over the Continent, devouring the fabric of works of righteousness. He who is most familiar with the history of those times will most readily agree with the startling statement of Dr. Cunningham (successor to Dr. Chalmers), that, "next to Paul, John Calvin has done most for the world."
So thoroughly was the Reformed world Calvinistic three hundred years ago that it was almost entirely Presbyterian. (7) The French Protestant Church was as rigidly Presbyterian as the Scotch Church. "There are many acts of her synod," says the late Dr. Charles Hodge, "which would make modern ears tingle, and which prove that American Presbyterianism, in its strictest forms, is a sucking dove compared to that of the immediate descendants of the Reformers." (8)
There was, of course, as there always has been, greater diversity in the matters of church government than in the doctrines of faith; yet even in these there was an almost unanimous agreement that the presbyterial was the form of government most in accord with the teachings of Scripture. Dr. John Reynolds, who was in his day regarded as perhaps the most learned man in the Church of England, said, in answer to Brancroft, chaplain to the archbishop, who had broached what was then called "the novelty" that the bishops are a distinct order superior to the ordinary clergymen, "All who have for five hundred years last past endeavored the reformation of the Church have taught that all pastors, whether they be called bishops or priests, are invested with equal authority and power; as, first, the Waldenses, next Marsilius Patavianus. then Wycliffe and his scholars, afterward Huss and the Hussites, and, last of all, Luther, Calvin, Brentius, Bullinger and Musculus. Among ourselves we have bishops, the queen's professors of divinity in our universities and other learned men consenting therein, as Bradford, Lambert, Jewel, Pilkington, etc. But why do I speak of particular persons? It is the common judgment of the Reformed churches of Helvetia, Savoy, France, Scotland, Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Low Countries and our own." (9)
If we now turn to the fruits of Calvinism in the form of devoted Christians and in the number of churches established, we shall see that it has been the most powerful evangelistic system of religious belief in the world. Consider with what amazing rapidity it spread over Europe, converting thousands upon thousands to a living Christianity. In about twenty-five years from the time when Calvin began his work there were two thousand places of Calvinistic worship, with almost half a million of worshippers, in France alone. When Ambrose Willie, a man who had studied theology at the feet of Calvin in Geneva, preached at Ernonville Bridge, near Tournay, in 1556, twenty thousand people assembled to hear him. Peter Gabriel had also for an audience in the same year, near Haarlem, "tens of thousands;" and we can judge of the theological character of this sermon from his text, which was, "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of your self; it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast; for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." (10)
These are but two of the many examples of the intense awakening produced by the earnest preaching of the Calvinistic doctrines. So great were the effects that in three years after this tie a General Synod was held in Paris, at which a Confession of Faith was adopted. Two years after the meeting of the Synod -- that is in 1561 -- the Calvinists numbered one-fourth of the entire French population. (11) And in less than half a century this so-called harsh system of belief had penetrated every part of the land, and had gained to its standards almost one-half of the population and almost every great mind in the nation. So numerous and powerful had its adherents become that for a time it appeared as if the entire nation would be swept over to their views. Smiles, in his Huguenots in France, (12) says: "It is curious to speculate on the influence which the religion of Calvin, himself a Frenchman, might have exercised on the history of France, as well as on the individual character of the Frenchman, had the balance of forces carried the nation bodily over to Protestantism, as was very nearly the case, toward the end of the sixteenth century." Certain it is that the nation would have had a different history from that which she has had. But it is interesting to mark how rapidly Calvin's opinions had spread in his native land, and to note the evangelistic effect of that system of doctrine which bears his name. Its marvelous evangelizing power lies no doubt in its scriptural thought and phraseology, and its intense spirituality and lofty enthusiasm and logical strength. Luther, though Calvinistic in his doctrinal beliefs, weakened his system by his concessions to princes and ceremonies. He "hesitated," says the historian Bancroft, (13) "to deny the real presence, and was indifferent to the observance of external ceremonies. Calvin, with sterner dialectics, sanctioned by the influence of the purest life and by his power as the ablest writer of his age, attacked the Roman doctrine respecting communion, and esteemed as a commemoration a rite which the Catholics revered as a sacrifice. Luther acknowledged princes as his protectors, and in the ceremonies of worship favored magnificence as an aid to devotion; Calvin was the guide of Swiss republics, and avoided, in their churches, all appeals to the senses as a crime against religion... Luther permitted the cross and taper, pictures and images, as things of indifference. Calvin demanded a spiritual worship in its utmost purity." Hence it was that Calvinism, by bringing the truth directly to bear upon the mind and heart, made its greater and more permanent conquests, and subjected itself to the fiercer opposition and persecution of Romanism.
The Lutheran Reformation," says Dyer in his History of Modern Europe, (14) "traveled but little out of Germany and the neighboring Scandinavian kingdoms; while Calvinism obtained a European character, and was adopted in all the countries that adopted a reformation from without, as France, as the Netherlands, Scotland, even England; for the early English Reformation under Edward VI. was Calvinistic, and Calvin was incontestably the father of our Puritans and dissenters. Thus, under his rule, Geneva may be said to have become the capital of European Reform."
A similar testimony is that of Francis de Sales, who in one of his letters to the duke of Savoy urged the suppression of Geneva as the capital of what the Romish Church calls heresy. "All the heretics," said he, respect Geneva as the asylum of their religion . There is not a city in Europe which offers more facilities for the encouragement of heresy, for it is the gate of France, of Italy and Germany, so that one finds there people of all nations -- Italians, French, Germans, Poles, Spaniards, English, and of countries still more remote. Besides, every one knows the great number of ministers bred there. Last year it furnished twenty to France. Even England obtains ministers from Geneva. What shall I say of its magnificent printing establishments, by means of which the city floods the world with its wicked books, and even goes the length of distributing them at the public expense?... All the enterprises undertaken against the Holy See and the Catholic princes have their beginnings at Geneva. No city in Europe receives more apostates of all grades, secular and regular. From thence I conclude that Geneva being destroyed would naturally lead to the dissipation of heresy." (15)
God had ordered it that Geneva, so accessible to all the nations of Western Europe, should be the home of . Calvin, from which he could most efficiently carry on his work of enlightenment and civilization. And so important to the cause of Protestantism had that city become that upon it, in the opinion of Francis de Sales, the whole cause depended.
Almost marvelous indeed was the rapid spread of the doctrines of Calvinism. Dyer says: (16) "Calvinism, still more inimical to Rome than the doctrines of Luther, had, from Geneva, its centre and stronghold, spread itself in all directions in Western Europe. In the neighboring provinces of Germany it had in a great degree supplanted Lutheranism, and had even penetrated into Hungary and Poland; it was predominant in Scotland, and had leavened the doctrines of the English Church ... The pope could reckon only upon Spain and Italy as sound and secure, with a few islands and the Venetian provinces in Dalmatia and Greece... Its converts belonged chiefly (in France) to the higher ranks, including many of the clergy, monks, nuns, and even bishops; and the Catholic churches seemed almost deserted, except by the lower classes."
From this brief survey we are enabled to perceive something of the wonderful evangelizing force of this system of belief. It was the only system able to cope with the great powers of the Romish Church, and over-throw them; and for two centuries it was accepted in all Protestant countries as the final account of the relations between man and his Maker. (17) In fact, there is no other system which has displayed so powerful an evangelizing force as Calvinism. This becomes still more manifest in the history of the great revivals with which the Christian Church has been blessed.
Many are accustomed to think that revivals belong particularly to the Methodist Church, whereas, in fact, that Church has never yet inaugurated a great national or far-spreading revival. Her revivals are marked with localism; they are connected with particular churches, and do not make a deep, abiding and general impression on society. The first great Christian revival occurred under the preaching of Peter in Jerusalem, who employed such language in his discourse or discourses as this: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain." That is Calvinism rigid enough. Passing over the greatest revival of modern times, the Reformation, which, as all know, was under the preaching of Calvinism, we come to our own land. The era of revivals in this country is usually reckoned from the year 1792, but in 1740 there was a marked revival under the preaching of the Rev. Jonathan Dickinson, a Presbyterian clergyman. It was about this time also that George Whitefield, called in his day the great Methodist," a clergyman of the Church of England and an uncompromising Calvinist, was startling the ungodly in Philadelphia. It is recorded that he threw "a horrid gloom" over this fashionable and worldly old town, "and put a stop to the dancing schools, assemblies and every pleasant thing." Strange, indeed, that dissipation and vanity are "pleasant things," while holiness and salvation from hell are disagreeable things! But this great man, in company with Gilbert Tennent, a Presbyterian clergyman, of whom Whitefield said, "He is a son of thunder," and hypocrites must either soon be converted or enraged at his preaching," was arousing multitudes by his fiery, impassioned, consecrated eloquence.
We speak of the Methodist Church beginning in a revival. And so it did. But the first and chief actor in that revival was not Wesley, but Whitefield. Though a younger man than Wesley, it was he who first went forth preaching in the fields and gathering multitudes of followers, and raising money and building chapels. It was Whitefield who invoked the two Wesleys to his aid. And he had to employ much argument and persuasion to overcome their prejudices against the movement. Whitefield began the great work at Bristol and Kingswood, and had found thousands flocking to his side, ready to be organized into churches, when he appealed to Wesley for assistance. Wesley, with all his zeal, had been quite a High-Churchman in many of his views. He believed in immersing even the infants, and demanded that dissenters should be rebaptized before being taken into the Church. He could not think of preaching in any place but in a church. "He should have thought," as he said, "the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church." (18) Hence when Whitefield called on John Wesley to engage with him in the popular movement, he shrank back. Finally, he yielded to Whitefield's persuasions, but, he allowed himself to be governed in the decision by what many would regard as a superstition. He and Charles first opened their Bibles at random to see if their eyes should fall on a text which might decide them. But the texts were all foreign to the subject. Then he had recourse to sortilege and cast lots to decide the matter. The lot drawn was the one marked for him to consent, and so he consented. Thus he was led to undertake the work with which his name has been so intimately and honorably associated ever since.
So largely was the Methodist movement owing to Whitefield that he was called "the Calvinistic establisher of Methodism," and to the end of his life he remained the representative of it in the eyes of the learned world. Walpole, in his Letters, speaks only once of Wesley in connection with the rise of Methodism, while he frequently speaks of Whitefield in connection with it. Mant, in his course of lectures against Methodism, speaks of it as an entirely Calvinistic affair. (19) Neither the mechanism nor the force which gave rise to it originated with Wesley. 20) Field-preaching, which gave the whole movement its aggressive character, and fitted and enabled it to cope with the powerful agencies which were armed against it, was begun by Whitefield, whilst "Wesley was dragged into it reluctantly." In the polite language of the day Calvinism" and "Methodism" were synonymous terms, and the Methodists were called "another sect of Presbyterians." (21) The sainted Toplady said of the time, "Arminianism is the great religious evil of this age and country. It has more or less infected every Protestant denomination amongst us, and bids fair for leaving us, in a short time, not so much as the very profession of godliness... We have generally forsaken the principles of the Reformation, and 'Ichabod,' the glory is departed, has been written on most of our pulpits and church-doors ever since."
It was Calvinism, and not Arminianism, which originated so far as any system of doctrines originated) the great religious movement in which the Methodist Church was born.
While, therefore, Wesley is to be honored for his work in behalf of that Church, we should not fail to remember the great Calvinist, George Whitefield, who gave that Church her first beginnings and her most distinctive character. Had he lived longer, and not shrunk from the thought of being the founder of a Church, far different would have been the results of his labors. As it was, he gathered congregations for others to form into churches, and built chapels for others to preach in.
In all that awakening in this country it was such Calvinists as Whitefield, Tennent, Edwards, Brainerd, and, at a later day, Nettleton and Griffin, who were the chief actors. "The Great Revival of 1800," as it is called, began toward the close of the last century and continued for a generation into this. During that time it was one series of awakenings. It spread far and wide, refreshing and multiplying the churches. It was the beginning of all those great religious movements for which our century is so noted. The doctrines which were employed to bring it about were those, as a recent writer remarks, "which are commonly distinguished as Calvinistic." (22) "The work," says the another, "was begun and carried on in this country under the preaching and influence of the doctrines contained in the Confession of Faith of the Presybeterian Church." 23) "It is wonderful how the holy influence of Jonathan Edwards, David Brainerd and others of that day is to be traced at the root of the revival and missionary efforts of all sects and lands." (24)
The revival which began in New England, and which was the greatest that had, until that time, been witnessed in the American colonies, resulted, under the blessing of God, from a series of doctrinal sermons preached by Jonathan Edwards.
But I cannot continue to specify instances. Let it be borne in mind that the men who have awakened the consciences and swayed the masses, and brought the multitudes to the feet of Jesus, not in a temporary excitement, but in a perpetual covenant, have been such Calvinists as Ambrose Wilde, and John Knox, and Thomas Chalmers, and George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards, and Griffin, Nettleton, Moody, and, last but not least, Spurgeon.
Calvinism may be unpopular in some quarters. But what of that? It cannot be more unpopular than the doctrines of sin and grace as revealed in the New Testament. But much of its unpopularity is due to the fact of its not being understood. Let it be examined without passion, let it be studied in its relations and logical consistency, and it will be seen to be at least a correct transcript of the teachings of the Scriptures, of the laws of Nature and of the facts of human life. If the faith and piety of the Church be weak today, it is, I am convinced, in a great measure because of the lack of a full, clear, definite knowledge and promulgation of these doctrines. The Church has been having a reign of candyism; she has been feeding on pap sweetened with treacle, until she has become disordered and weakly. Give her a more clearly-defined and a more firmly grasped faith, and she will lift herself up in her glorious might before the world. All history and experience prove the correctness of Carlyle's saying, that "At all turns a man who will do faithfully needs to believe firmly." It is this, I believe, that the Church needs today more than any other thing--- not rain-doctors," not religious "diviners," wandering to and fro, rejoicing in having no dogmatic opinions and no theological preferences; no, it is not these religious ear-ticklers that are needed -- although they may be wanted somewhere -- but, as history teaches us, clear and accurate views of the great fundamental doctrines of sin and grace. First make the tree good, and the fruit will be good. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. It is not for us to trifle with these matters. Our time here is but for a moment, and our eternity depends on the course we take. Should we not, then, seek to know the truth, and strive, at any cost, to buy it, and sell it not?
By all the terrors of an endless death, as by all the glories of an endless life, we are called and pressed and urged to know the truth and follow it unto the end. And this joy we have, in and over all as the presence of a divine radiance, "that He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ." So grant thou Holy Spirit of God, to begin the work in every one of us; and to thee, with the Father and the Son, shall be all the praise and the glory for ever Amen.
1 Calvinism, p. 6.
2 Humphrey's Our Theology, p. 68, etc.
3 Gladstone's Life of Whitefield, p. 199.
4 I do not forget, and do not disparage, Richard Watson's Theological Institutes.
5 Dr. Hodge.
6 Dr. Fisher, Hist. Ref.
7 Dr. Breed's Presbyterianism Three Hundred Years Ago.
8 Const. Hist.
9. Breed's Presbyterianism Three Hundred Years Ago, p. 24, 25.
10 Eph. 2:8-10.
11 Fisher, Hist. Ref.
12 P. 100.
13 Hist. U.S., I. pp. 277, 278.
14 Vol. 11. p. 7.
15 "Vie de Ste. Francois de Sates, par son neveu, p. 120
16 Hist. Mod. Europe, vol. 2. pp. 136, 392.
17 Froude, Calvinism, p. 4.
18 Lecky, Hist. England, Eighteenth Century, vol. 2. p. 612.
19 Bampton Lectures, for 1812.
20 Wedgewood's Life of John Wesley, p. 157.
21 Bampton Lectures, for 1812. 22 Speer's Great Revival of 1800, p. 52.
23 Dr. Smil. Ralston's Letters
24 Speer's Great Revival. p. 112.